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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in copywriting (2)


    building muscular copy

    Direct writing is in a bad way these days. Most of the emails and packages I get are mere lists of product features, usually bulleted, with some vague sense that it will benefit me as a human – and not much more personal than that.

    Why is this happening? The canard about people not reading any more is one reason, a trusim that clients and agency types are both guilty of repeating all too often when judging letter or email copy. Our audience doesn't have a lot of time, they say, so cut all this stuff about them and focus on the product. Bullets would make it really easy to scan. (Yes, they'll say "scan" instead of "skim.") And why is it two pages? Make it single sided.

    And this, my friends, is how we get lovely looking things that allegedly want our attention but which actually contain little or no reason to engage. 

    But it doesn't have to be this way. While the classic formats may be having a hard time, the endeavour of engaging an audience to get them to respond – the purpose of direct marketing – is alive and well in other forms. For instance, take a look at this page selling a book called Anabolic Cooking. The art direction seems to be a mess, it seems to be several feet long, and it wouldn't pass muster at any agency internal. And yet the writing is classic. It's actually persuasive, with the writer going through misconceptions and issues and knocking them down so you have no reason to say "no" – like any great salesperson. That's strong (if formulaic) writing.

    I've recently seen a bunch of examples of this kind of site, and it seems to be where direct is heading for product-focused sales. It is a formula, and it's easy to see how people would be turned off by the high pressure. But, being classic DM folk, these marketers don't care about the fact that their page may turn some people off, and that it's not the coolest advertising ever done, or that it takes time to engage with it.

    It sells to people who are interested. And it works. 

    As creatives, I think we laugh and ignore this as "garbage" at our peril. There's always something to be learned from something that works, something we can apply no matter what we're writing.


    it's not like I said that your writing shouldn't have *any* structure

    A regular reader takes umbrage with my recent post about structure. The worry was that I was setting a bad example for the young 'uns, encouraging those who are new to the word business to forsake the idea of structure.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Seems that, despite my intentions, my basic point didn't come across as strongly as I meant. And that is: You shouldn't impose structure. You should discover it.

    So, let me be more clear about what I meant by discovering structure.

    It means you've got to edit the hell out of your work.

    You start by reading and rereading what you've done, ideally with some time to think about it. Then, with some clearer understanding of what's actually on the page in front of you, you go back to work. You cut what's pretty but useless. You move things around. You keep working the words to make them flow naturally.

    I find that the basic challenge is to spot the differences between what you thought you were typing and what you actually typed. Intentions don't count for much in copywriting. And anyway, the words on the page will usually be more interesting than the ones in your head; they also have the virtue of being on the page, ready to work with. They put you way farther ahead than the imaginary ones.

    They'll start telling you what they need, if you listen. And as you respond to them, you begin to see the architecture that the words demand. Their patterns begin to form a structure.

    That to me is the ideal way of working. You start with a purpose, but not a rigid idea of how you're going to achieve that goal. You leave yourself open to happy accidents, interesting collisions and, if you're lucky, inspiration.

    I know it's a little like starting to build a house without a blueprint, and relying on how the bricks feel to tell you how many bedrooms the place should have. Utterly ridiculous, and yet somehow true.